Downtown Music

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September 26, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Michael Metzger
Michael Metzger

Higher than high life

Steve Winwood is an old man. The singer-songwriter-keyboardist is all of 57, yet he's been a star and a music force to be reckoned with for nigh on 40 years. In rock 'n' roll, 40 is an age when VH-1 airs a rerun of your episode of "Behind the Music," detailing your death by overdose at 24. If you're somehow still alive at 40, you're tattooed and being laughed at in a reality show on MTV. Forty is old; 57 is unspeakable.

Like Dylan Thomas would, we want to see Winwood go out in a blaze of Hammond B-3 fury. Rage, Stevie, rage. Don't go gentle into that adult contemporary night.

It's hard to believe that anyone has to root for Winwood to come back from the artistic death-state he's been enjoying since Video Hits One (VH-1) debuted in the mid-'80s. That's when Winwood ruled the charts and airwaves with the low funk of high-sheen pop a la "Back in the High Life," "Roll with It" and "Arc of a Diver." He and Michael McDonald and Phil Collins were interchangeable, each more forgettable and inauthentic than the other as purveyors of overproduced attempts to mass-produce hits often mischaracterized as "blue-eyed soul."

And all three sold millions and millions of those yawners that are now the alpha and omega of easy listening radio stations. Is there a notable difference between "Take Me Home," "I Keep Forgettin'" and "Roll With It"? With a yawn, we submit that there is not.

It could be argued that all three of those artists made more compelling, creative music before their rebirths as solo icons of the 1980s. It could be argued, but you won't catch anyone around here saying that McDonald or Collins ever made interesting music (fans of Collins-era Genesis, your monotone cries of protest are noted).

Winwood, however, practically defined a couple of genres all by himself, making seething storms of soul with the Spencer Davis Group as a teenager ("Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm a Man") and then turning around and exploring psychedelia by way of jazz, blues and extended jams as part of Traffic ("Dear Mr. Fantasy" and "Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys") and Blind Faith ("Can't Find My Way Home").

In addition, Winwood lent his talents on keyboards to a slew of recordings by important artists: Howlin' Wolf, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, The Who, Lou Reed, Toots & the Maytals, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, James Brown, Tina Turner, and on and on.

Somewhere, somehow, Winwood lost his way, forsaking the righteous organ-pumped mania of "I'm a Man" -- written as a far-seeing teenager -- for the sophisticated snoozes of formulaic drivel such as "Higher Life" and "When You See a Chance."

Lately, Winwood has danced on a line drawn somewhere between his overly slick solo hits and the trippy jams of his long-gone days with Traffic. His 2003 CD, "About Time," features some snaky Latin rhythms on congas and timbales, but overall the album gives the impression of a mostly passionless artist in search of a new signature sound.

Winwood is in the middle of a short tour to promote his new DVD, "Last Great Traffic Jam," a look back at the 1994 reunion he and drummer Jim Capaldi had as Traffic (Chris Wood, Traffic's flutist, had died of liver failure in 1983).

With any luck, and perhaps a bit of coaxing, you'll get to hear the man relive his early sound and fury, and perhaps signal that he's not going anywhere gently.

• Su Oct. 2, 7:30 p.m. Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave. S. $40-$66. 339-7007.